April 13, 2021 – The same growing body of research cited by Justice Anthony Kennedy in Roper v. Simmons – the U.S. Supreme Court decision banning the death penalty for young people under 18 – is inspiring juvenile law practitioners, youth advocates, and local courts to take a closer look at emerging adults – those ranging in age from 17 to 24.
In September 2020, the Juvenile Law Center released a report, Rethinking Justice for Emerging Adults: Spotlight on the Great Lakes Region, outlining efforts to recognize this distinctive stage of adulthood. Some of these efforts include a renewed drive to change the age of adult criminal court jurisdiction, and in Wisconsin, a Brown County specialty court targeting the emerging adult population.
Since Roper was decided 15 years ago, the science of adolescent brain development has continued to grow. Now, most scientists agree that emerging adults experience a comparable rate of brain development to those observed during early childhood. The juvenile justice and criminal justice systems are just now starting to recognize the different needs of emerging adults and adapt its systems to account for these differences.
Emerging adults account for slightly more than 9% of the total population in the United States, yet the individuals in this age range account for more than 23% of all people arrested. Other problems exist for this population, including higher rates of recidivism, higher racial disparity in incarceration, and some of the highest rates of untreated mental illness.
Wisconsin faces some special issues with the emerging adult population. First, Wisconsin’s emerging adult population is broader than most states, because Wisconsin remains to be one of only three states nationwide who have adult criminal jurisdiction over 17 year olds. Over the past few decades in Wisconsin, various attempts have been made to “Raise the Age” of adult criminal jurisdiction to 18. In his state budget proposal for the 2021-23 biennium, Gov. Tony Evers once again proposed raising the age of adult jurisdiction to 18.
While prior attempts to Raise the Age in Wisconsin have created exceptions that would allow prosecution of 17 year olds in adult court if the youth has no prior offenses, these kinds of exceptions may exacerbate the current disparities that already exist with emerging adults. For this population, 52% of individuals aged 24 or younger who were admitted to prison were Black, even though only 8.6% of the entire population is in that age range.
Most disturbing, in Wisconsin, the number of Black individuals in the emerging adult population actually outnumber white individuals in the same population, despite the fact that blacks make up only about 7% of the total population.
Brown County’s Young Adult Court
In addition to statewide efforts to Raise the Age, the Brown County Circuit Court has taken local action to address the needs of emerging adults by implementing a Young Adult Specialty Court that accepts participants age 17 to 21.
Elisabeth Stockbridge, U.W. 2009, is a local attorney manager with the Office of the State Public Defender in Shawano, where she practices in criminal, juvenile, and family defense.
The framework for the program is largely based on the Young Adult Court in San Francisco, the first of its kind in the nation. The model anticipates that the young adult participants will work with mentors, probation, and specialty court staff to identify treatment needs and follow through with developmentally appropriate services.
Although the Brown County Young Adult Specialty Court is in its infancy, Judge Tammy Jo Hock, who presides over the court, hopes the team will provide young adult participants the support and services they need to succeed.
Judge Hock, who presided over juvenile court proceedings for several years, observed how youthful defendants in criminal court are faced with overcoming difficult obstacles, such as unstable families and undeveloped life and job skills. The program hopes to bridge this gap for these young adults, so they can become fully integrated and productive members of the community.
Young adults who successfully complete the program will either benefit from dismissal of more serious charges through a deferred judgment agreement, or from expungement of lower-level offenses.
Early evaluation of the San Francisco program has shown that this specialty court model has provided a more developmentally appropriate approach to justice for emerging adults, and Brown County hopes to achieve these same results.
Promising Efforts, Positive Changes
The Raise the Age effort and Brown County Young Adult Specialty Court are both promising efforts that will hopefully lead to positive changes for emerging adults in Wisconsin. Any attempts to craft legislation or implement specialty courts should take into account the high level of already-existing racial disparity in incarceration in Wisconsin, so as not to exacerbate these issues further.
The next CLE program offered by the Children and the Law Section is open for registration. Reserve your spot today for Advocating for Children in School Disciplinary Proceedings, from noon to 1 p.m. on Monday, May 17. This program is available at no cost to section members.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Children & the Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Children & the Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.